China and the Pacific Step Up

In the recent Australian elections on May 21, 2022, we saw China dominating the domestic politics during the election campaigns. As Professor Simon Jackman, University of Sydney, who studies the major issues for Australian voters in elections observed, a perceived threat from another country; has not been an election focus since the Cold War.

A recent leaked document exposed China’s security pact with the Solomon Islands raising concerns in the United States (US), including Australia. The leaked document revealed the South Pacific Island’s unprecedented level of security cooperation with Beijing which includes the latter’s right to access naval facilities in the Solomon Islands for resupply/logistical replenishments and stopover transitions. This shows in the expansive security language used in the document. The US and Australia (including New Zealand) believe this could serve as a benign nomenclature for a Chinese naval base in the Solomon Islands which Beijing denies and brushes aside as a business-as-usual approach to diplomacy. However, the case in point is Djibouti where China initially claimed it had a ‘minor logistics access agreement’ which later turned to be China’s first overseas military base.

The advantage of a base for China in the South Pacific region is that any force projections by the US in the South Pacific, particularly in the East Asia, would require the US to pass through this point of friction which may later turn to be a ‘strategic choke point’ for the US and Australia. This will eventually undermine and disrupt the US force flow. Also, factored into Chinese thinking is the case of Taiwan whose influence Beijing has been working to undermine. About one-third of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners are located in the Pacific. Thus, having a military base in South Pacific would enable China to coerce/influence diplomatically and financially Taiwan’s diplomatic partners. They may be influenced to switch sides and not recognise Taiwan.

The domino effect of Beijing’s actions would drag the South Pacific into a theatre of tension between China and others in the region, especially Australia, New Zealand and the US. Such destabilisation makes this region a place for great power rivalry. The need of the hour is strategic empathy by the US and others in the region like New Zealand and Australia to rethink on the strategies to meet the demands of the region in the long-term. A Chinese presence is bound to shift and reshape the landscape of this strategic space.

The November 2021 civil unrest in the Solomon Islands saw the public protest against Prime Minister (PM) Manasseh Sogavare’s action of switching sides to China and abandoning Taiwan. The protesters were also from a coalition called Malaita for Democracy (M4D) which was declared unlawful in 2021 by the government of the Solomon Islands. While PM Sogavare blamed foreign powers for fostering anti-government, protests it is widely known that the switch to Beijing was with little to no public consultation. Though the contents of the agreement were not publicly released, a military base/installation by China in the Solomon Islands will be a red line for Australia and the West.

The Solomon Islands has a geostrategic location among shipping and communication lines in the Pacific Ocean. China’s interest in this region is not new, in 2018 Beijing in its soft diplomatic overtures offered a deal to Papua New Guinea (PNG) which is situated to the west of Solomon Islands to develop its Lombrum naval base in the Manus Island. However, PNG awarded the contract to Australia.

Although the US has the largest number of military bases across the globe (around 800) in comparison to China (only one in Djibouti), the latter possess the world’s largest navy pushing the former to second place. It is significant to note the methodology adopted by the US and China in this. While the US prefers to form alliances with commitments in terms of security guarantees, China takes a nuanced approach by way of economic agreements and security arrangements.

Lying to the north-west of the Solomon Islands is Guam Island where the US maintains a naval and air base as part of its strategic force projections in the Western Pacific. In January 2022, North Korea test fired its Hwasong-12, an intermediate to long-range ballistic missile which analysts say was powerful enough to put the US territory of Guam and the US base in Okinawa in range. This adds up to the region’s woes as China uses North Korea to its advantage against the US and Japan as it uses Pakistan against India in the South Asian region. Now this security agreement with the Solomon Islands gives China an upper hand in terms of intelligence gathering in the Pacific Ocean. This also gives it power of observation of military exercises carried out by the US and the West and the ability to monitor the activities carried in this region thus favouring Beijing in the exercise of power across the Pacific.

The security agreement may likely see a domino effect in the future in this region as Beijing will reward the Solomon Islands with investments, increased tourism and development plans with the promise of prosperity. It may even favour the current ruling dispensation in the Solomon Islands to perpetuate its entrenchment into the island’s domestic politics. This will affect other island neighbours like Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia, Oceania among several others to be more receptive and favourable to China. These small Pacific islands also act as potential vote banks that can favour China in international forums like the United Nations. By realising the significance of this region, Beijing wants to extract resources as these Pacific island states possess large maritime Exclusive Economic Zones despite their small size.

China understands that the Pacific islands suffer from structural deficiencies like poverty, urbanisation, immigration, population explosion, unemployment, lack of infrastructure and the climate crisis for which the US, Australia and New Zealand have little to no solution. China is or will be seen as having a solution to these ills as these island nations understand their geostrategic positioning. The time is not too far off when these islands may play the China card to seek leverage from the US and others like Australia and New Zealand. Also, Beijing has inserted itself between the US bases in the Pacific and Australia which is a strategic signalling to the recently concluded AUKUS deal between the US, the United Kingdom and Australia.

There is a lot of politics happening on the Indian Ocean over the last several years and it is much visible in the Western Indian Ocean where China has shown considerable interest. The beginning of 2022 saw the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi undertaking five-nation tour to Eritrea, Kenya, the Comoros, Sri Lanka and Maldives. All these lies in the Indian Ocean region where China is already ahead in the race to diminish India’s influence. In addition, there are classified US intelligence reports indicating Beijing’s intention to establish its first permanent military presence on the Atlantic Ocean in Equatorial Guinea. It helps project Beijing’s power directly towards North America and Europe. Therein lies the importance of Western Indian Ocean (WIO) for countries like Madagascar, the Comoros and Seychelles which will serve as transit/supply hubs and logistics support.

Many African states like Kenya, for instance, are already part of the Belt Road Initiative and are known to seek Chinese support and funding. During Wang Yi’s visit, an oil terminal at the Mombasa port was inaugurated. This is an important project on the Indian Ocean coast. It augments the $3.6-billion Chinese-funded Mombasa-Nairobi railway. In December 2021, China had conducted the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting in Dakar, Senegal expressing its development plans for African states and its ambitions. Such initiatives and the visit by Wang Yi to the Comoros also diminishes French influence in the region (Reunion Island and Mayotte) which France continues to hold. Sri Lanka and the Maldives are already well known for seeking Chinese investments for their economic development, the latter’s case with disastrous results. It also stems from Beijing’s insecurity arising due to India’s pivotal position in the Indian Ocean region and the former not being a member of any grouping in the region. This has made Xi Jinping create one under the shared community for mankind principle and a more recent Global Security Initiative (GSI), as enunciated by his vice foreign minister Le Yucheng.

The Indian Ocean region is critical to global trade, security, and geopolitics and it remains to be seen how India prioritises its engagements as well as tackling Chinese manoeuvring. The Western Indian Ocean Region (WIOR) is also part of India’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) initiative and part of the Indo-Pacific. Countries like Japan and France also look at the WIOR as part of their Indo-Pacific framework. For the US, WIOR comes under their United States Central Command (CENTCOM) and from Hawaii to India, the region is covered by the Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) as renamed in 2018 denoting its growing importance.

As the geopolitics of the region is undergoing an unprecedented flux in tandem with the strategic shifts in the Indo-Pacific, it signifies an intensification of great power rivalry and domestic volatility for the small Pacific island countries in the coming years, impacting the region’s ongoing geopolitical competition.

(The article has been authored by Balasubramanian C is senior research analyst, Chennai Centre for China Studies)

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